Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why I Shudder Every Time I Hear the Phrase “Research-Based” Teaching Practice

I am being totally honest when I say I shudder when I hear educators and policymakers use the phrase “research-based teaching practice.” It’s like when someone runs their fingernails across a chalkboard. Those of us who remember chalkboards also remember the degree of inner discomfort that accompanies that experience. I even used it as an attention-getter in my earliest days of teaching, but I digress here. Why do I shudder with discomfort with the phrase “research-based teaching practice?” Well, for starters, I am not totally convinced that such an entity exists, at least well-enough to earn such a scientific label. Before the rotten tomatoes start flying in my direction, let me explain myself.

I first experienced this shudder when I started a teacher education program a quarter of a century ago. One of my first curriculum classes was one of those educational courses that tried in every way possible to masquerade as a “science” course. In this course, EL Thorndike and Piaget was everywhere. I was learning the “principles of curriculum design" and “education science.” My shudder happened when I began to labor over a curriculum unit design project where I was asked to design “performance objectives” using a recipe approach developed by the “educational researchers.”

As I wrote these “objectives” I was told that they had to be measurable, which actually was a maddening requirement for a future high school English teacher. So much of the things I wanted students to do with the great literature of the world along with their creative writing, came out knarled and unrecognizable when twisted into a “performance objective” recipe. Measurability was so much more than simply answering an “objective multiple choice question.” I shuddered then, but I wrote my “performance objectives” for my unit project, turned it in, and never looked back. This practice was simply too superficial to be useful in the high school English classroom.

Fast forward today, after 16 years in the high school and middle school classroom and 10 years as a principal, I think I now realize why I have always shuddered a bit when it comes to the mention of “research-based” teaching practice. It is simply this: such a phrase simply implies that its “research-basedness,” if I may invent a word, implies that it is validated through accepted standardized test results. It reminds me of that earlier “curriculum design” course from years ago. All that is worthwhile is measurable was the main principle of curriculum design I learned then.

My experience has been that “educational practices” that are validated through traditional, measureable results from tests ignores so much of the complexity of classrooms, teaching, and student learning. In fact, often what is advertised as “research-based teaching practice” is a practice that only works some of the time. Rarely, does any teaching practice work every time, no matter how much research backs its application. That is because there is so much in our endeavors as educators beyond our control, no matter how much we like to think otherwise.

I am certainly not saying that there is no such thing as “research-based” teaching practices, but I think the shudder I feel goes back to my own discomfort experienced in the curriculum design class years ago. As became apparent to me then, a great deal of what we do as educators is not “measurable” in conventional ways, and some ways may not even possible. To try to make it measureable distorts and twists the learning into something superficial and unrecognizable. Sometimes trying to force the label “research-based” on teaching practice distorts that practice in the same way that trying to force “performance objectives” did with my high school literature unit years ago. Today, I am glad that I shudder when someone starts throwing around the phrase “research-based” in education these days. That tells me my BS alarm system is still working.

The real problems of education are not empirical ones, but rather profoundly moral, economic, and political ones."

Emery J. Hyslop-Margison;Ayaz Naseem. Scientism and Education (Kindle Location 703). Kindle Edition.

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